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On August 3, more than 92,000 people filled Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, to view a women’s college volleyball match between the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Omaha Mavericks. It was the largest crowd ever assembled for a women’s sporting event—in any sport, at any level, anywhere in the world. Diane Mendenhall, a former volleyball star in Ogallala who is now president of the Omaha Supernovas, the state’s professional team, was part of the crowd. “It really was the sport’s coming of age,” she tells First Things. “It was truly an entire state embracing a sport, a representation of who we are as Nebraskans.”

For many observers, the event testified to the success of Title IX, the civil rights provision associated with increased opportunities for female athletes. “Title IX has created a monster—the North Star of volleyball in the state of Nebraska,” said University of Nebraska athletics director Trev Alberts.

It is easy to see why people hoping to celebrate the success of Title IX would point to Nebraska volleyball. More than fifty years after the law’s passage, women’s sports enjoy stronger legal backing than they do fan support. In 2022, every other collegiate women’s team at a public institution in a power conference lost money. Only Nebraska volleyball turned a profit. The program owes its success in part to its passionate fans, whose devotion is reflected in a 319-match home sellout streak. And it is only one of several successful programs in the state. In 2023, every Division I school in Nebraska made the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament. As John Cook, the Huskers’ coach, said in November, “We are the volleyball state.”

Yet the strength of women’s volleyball in Nebraska is a more complicated story than these simple celebrations of Title IX suggest. Its ascent began many decades ago—not with civil rights law, but with a fateful decision to restrict women’s sports.

A hundred years ago, basketball was the most popular women’s sport in Nebraska, drawing crowds and inspiring controversy. In 1923, twenty schools competed in the state’s first basketball tournament for high school girls, a number that more than doubled the following year, when forty-six teams converged on the village of Havelock. The spectators were so numerous that organizers were forced to seek a larger venue.

The sport had its detractors—despite the fact that Nebraska’s girls were playing six-on-six basketball, a now extinct variant designed to be congenial to women. Some associated basketball with loose morals. In 1923, a Methodist minister in Ainsworth, a ranching town in the Nebraska Sandhills, accused the local girls’ team of playing cards and dancing. The ensuing scandal forced every member of the high school’s faculty to resign. Others may have taken it as an attempt to subvert gender roles. In 1924, a facetious item in the student newspaper at Doane College skewered the high-school girls’ basketball tournament as a sign that women “not only want equality of rights but they want to be MEN.”

More influential objections were voiced by progressive reformers and medical authorities. In a 1924 article that received coverage in Nebraska newspapers, J. Anna Norris, a doctor at the University of Minnesota, argued that the crowds, publicity, and competitive pride involved in interscholastic basketball pressured young women to exert themselves excessively. She was particularly concerned about the effects of interscholastic competition on young women’s fertility (a 2006 article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine observed that “reproductive dysfunction is common in female athletes”).

A survey sent to Nebraska schools after the first girls’ basketball tournament “indicated a desire to continue” the meets. Yet it was not to be. In 1924, the Nebraska High School Athletic association amended its constitution to read, “No school can hold membership in the Nebraska High School Athletic association that has any part in any girls’ basketball tournament—local, county, district or state.” Regular-season games were technically still permitted, but the move effectively killed Nebraska’s most popular women’s sport.

The end of interscholastic girls’ basketball, imposed by state officials who took a dim view of “girls’ competitive athletics in general,” was a blow to small towns. Whereas the men’s tournament featured powerhouse schools from Nebraska’s cities—Omaha Central, Omaha Tech, Creighton Prep—the girls’ tournament had been dominated by teams from farming communities like Verdon, Hubbell, Spencer, and Butte. Forward-thinking members of the urban academic and professional classes led the campaign against a women’s sport that their country cousins had embraced.

Over the coming decades, rural Nebraskans transferred their devotion to girls’ volleyball, a natural replacement for the six-on-six basketball they had previously played. Under six-player rules, dribbling was strictly limited, stealing the ball was forbidden, and players were confined to certain areas of the court. These regulations, designed to reduce exertion and prevent rough play, were also celebrated for promoting discipline and collaboration. In Norris’s words, six-player basketball was about “the team—not the individual.” Volleyball—in which touches of the ball are closely counted, players are limited to part of the court, and mere contact with the net is penalized—reproduces many of the features of six-player basketball.

In 1946, a long-running girls’ volleyball tournament was initiated at Peru College. Once again, Nebraska’s small towns led the way. Of the twenty towns that participated in the first year’s tournament, only four still have high schools—the rest having succumbed to school consolidation, perhaps the most painful element of rural depopulation. The city–country divide proved enduring. Writing in the Omaha World-Herald, Dirk Chatelain notes that in 1970, 90 percent of Class D schools were playing girls’ volleyball, compared to 62 percent of Class C schools, 31 percent of Class B schools, and 25 percent of Class A schools.

As it developed into a national power, Nebraska volleyball drew strength from the state’s small towns. Dani Busboom Kelly, who as a player helped lead the Cornhuskers to a national championship in 2006 and is now the head coach of the women’s volleyball team at the University of Louisville, is a native of Cortland, Nebraska (pop. 505). Jordan Larson, considered the greatest ever to play for the university, is from Hooper (pop. 843). The high school team in Ogallala (pop. 4,823) drew sellout crowds when the Cornhuskers were still playing before empty arenas. “We packed our auditorium already in the 1970s,” Todd von Kampen, author of several books on Nebraska’s history, tells First Things. “We on the football team were among the most enthusiastic cheerleaders the girls had. We had routines that we would do every time they scored a point.”

What explains the support for women’s athletics by Nebraska’s small towns? One factor was communal pride. Beating a rival has special resonance when each school represents an entire town. Another was simple math. In larger towns, volleyball was a popular intramural sport. In towns too small to field more than one squad per sport, interscholastic competition was a necessity. Small towns also made it difficult for any bifurcation to emerge between women’s sports and ostensibly more feminine pursuits. When almost every girl is participating in athletics, there is no opposing image of womanhood, no prom queen whose closest brush with sports is her quarterback boyfriend.

Farm life accorded with a particular idea of femininity, one that did not exclude physical exertion. “This is a state of strong women,” von Kampen says. “You would find that all throughout the breadbasket of this country. To be a farm wife or a ranch wife, or to be a daughter of one . . . means you face the same challenges and hardships as the men. You’re working right alongside them.”

Settlement patterns shaped these attitudes. One decade after the passage of Title IX, the states with the highest athletic participation rates were concentrated in the Great Plains and Upper Midwest. Not coincidentally, this is the part of the country with the highest rates of German ancestry. In the nineteenth century, German Americans became known for the way their women, as well as their men, toiled in field and milk barn—a practice that struck some English-descended observers as odd. In the words of Walter Kamphoefner, a professor of history at Texas A&M University, women in German communities approached work in ways “that extended beyond the appropriate female sphere in Anglo-American culture.” The same held true in sports.

When towns in this region embraced women’s sports, they did so on particular terms. In Nebraska, volleyball led the way. In Iowa, which had the highest rates of female athletic participation in the nation, six-on-six girls’ basketball continued to be played. The success of both sports was tied to the perception that they were suited to women.

Von Kampen, whose mother played volleyball in Cairo in the 1950s, finds women’s volleyball more compelling than men’s. “Men tend to overpower the game,” he says. “Having grown up in a town that really took its volleyball seriously, I think it is the perfect sport for women. It has power; it has strength; it has grace. But it’s not lacking in toughness.”

“Volleyball doesn’t really have a male counterpart,” Mendenhall says. “Soccer, basketball—all the other women’s sports have counterparts in the men’s game. Men do play volleyball, but it is a completely different thing. The men’s game is very much a power game, with very powerful serves. Pass, set, hit. If you can dig the hit, the rally goes on, but that’s very rare in the men’s game. So you don’t have the same kind of play.”

Thanks to Title IX, women’s volleyball in Nebraska now enjoys resources and support that were unthinkable in the past. But its success can be traced to attitudes and decisions that run counter to Title IX as it has been understood by its authoritative interpreters. In Cohen v. Brown University (1996), an important Title IX case, Hugh Bownes of the 1st Circuit Court argued that “Title IX was enacted in order to remedy discrimination that results from stereotyped notions of women’s interests and abilities.” As Boston College’s R. Shep Melnick shows in his book The Transformation of Title IX, the idea that Title IX must be used to break down sex stereotypes took root among judges and administrative agency employees.

In this way, Title IX is opposed to the unique sports culture of the Midwest and Great Plains, for which it is sometimes given credit. By seeking to open opportunities for women and break down sex stereotypes, it accorded with an ascendant meritocratic ethos that prized individual attainment and self-expression. Small towns, by contrast, had a communal understanding of women’s sports, which stressed loyalty to place while affirming gender roles. In Nebraska, these two visions, opposed in theory, worked together in practice. Volleyball could be hailed as an egalitarian project that undermined stereotypes, even as many fans and players understood it differently.

In Iowa, a much sharper conflict occurred. As Nebraska suppressed girls’ basketball, rural officials in Iowa resisted similar pressures and established their own governing board. In time, six-on-six basketball became the state’s favorite sport. The Only Dance in Iowa, a history of six-on-six by Max McElwain, documents its immense popularity—and eventual demise. “The year before Title IX passed, 20 percent of the high school female athletes in America hailed from Iowa,” McElwain writes. Six-on-six was so firmly rooted in rural communities that not until 1972 did a city school make the state tournament, which had been going since the 1920s.

Six-player basketball in Iowa was America’s most successful instance of women’s athletics—but it ran counter to Title IX. In 1983, three girls sued to end the game, arguing that its distinctive rules denied them educational opportunities by making it harder to play five-on-five basketball at the college level. “They said they’d never be able to dribble, they couldn’t shoot, so they’d be denied equal opportunities for education,” McElwain tells First Things. Under legal pressure, athletic officials in 1993 abolished six-on-six in favor of five-on-five. McElwain records responses to the move in his book. “It was a stake driven right into the heart of small town tradition,” read one news story. “Few people that are native of cities like Des Moines, or live outside the state, realize the tie between six-player girls’ basketball and the small towns where it has flourished.” “My eyes went shut,” Lynne Lorenzen, a six-on-six legend, said of the moment when she heard the news. “I thought, ‘No, don’t say that.’” A coach in southwest Iowa said, “When my wife told me the news, it was like someone close to me had died.” Gail Hartigan, a member of the board that voted for the switch, was surprised by its suddenness. “I knew it was coming, but I never, ever dreamed it would come this fast.”

And so, in the name of Title IX, officials in Iowa eliminated the sport that Nebraska had suppressed decades before. Iowa girls—at least the most talented—would now be better positioned to attend college on basketball scholarships, an outcome that accorded with the meritocratic vision of women’s sports. But the communal understanding—which valued interscholastic girls’ sports as contributing to the life of the town and reflecting distinct gender roles—was a casualty.

Iowa still enjoys some of the benefits of six-on-six basketball culture. Jan Jensen, formerly a six-on-six star at Elk Horn–Kimballton High, now coaches women’s basketball at the University of Iowa, and recruited the standout Caitlin Clark. But five-on-five basketball has never achieved the popularity among high school girls, or fans, that six-on-six once had. In Iowa, as in Nebraska, volleyball has been the beneficiary. “Volleyball is more popular than basketball with the girls,” one Iowa coach told McElwain after the change. “There’s no full-court running. I don’t know if girls were made for all that pounding.” In Iowa, McElwain observes, volleyball’s “ascension parallels the demise of six-player basketball.”

Given the many opportunities it has created, advocates of women’s athletics have many reasons to praise Title IX. But those touting the gains should also count the costs. Just as the law once extinguished the country’s most vibrant culture of women’s athletics, it continues to work against certain forms of women’s sports. Judges and administrators who believe that the purpose of Title IX is to break down gender roles continue to refuse recognition to competitive cheer, a sport that requires considerable skill and training but is disparaged as too feminine. Nebraska’s embrace of volleyball is a reminder that in important ways the promotion of women’s sports may be less well served by any law than by the cultural attitudes and communal traditions against which the law is sometimes turned.

Matthew Schmitz is a founder and editor of Compact.

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